Sydney or Melbourne – which is more liveable (part 2)?Posted: May 31, 2010
I noted on Friday that the 2010 Mercer annual quality of living survey says Sydney is more liveable than Melbourne.
However neither of these surveys define what liveability is from the point of view of the residents of a city, begging the question: what makes one city more liveable than another? And in particular, which is more liveable, Sydney or Melbourne?
The strategic plan for Melbourne, Melbourne 2030, uses the term liveability liberally and even asserts that the plan’s “main purpose is to continue to protect the liveability of established areas” (page 1). It lists liveability as one of the city’s key strengths, but this is the closest it comes to a definition (page 23):
“liveability: metropolitan Melbourne overflows with sporting, cultural and recreational opportunity; the public transport system makes the city generally easy to traverse; health and safety standards are high, as is environmental quality; metropolitan Melbourne and the surrounding region has outstanding natural landscapes and coastlines”
At page 40, liveability is summarised as “quality of life, security, amenities, etc” and at page 50, in the context of activity centres, it is summarised again, this time as “safety, convenience, comfort and aesthetics”.
This is all a bit inexact. Whether the authors quite meant it or not, it seems implicitly to define the liveability of Melbourne as the quality of the public realm i.e. life outside the front door of residents’ houses and workplaces. The focus seems to be on ease of mobility, safety, leisure opportunities and the quality of the natural and human-constructed environments.
This seems a useful starting point. In theory, it should be a reasonably straightforward matter to construct some sort of index of these attributes as a basis for comparing the liveability of cities (although some traits, like the quality of the built environment, are inherently subjective).
Conceptualising liveability as an “index” makes sense to me, but doesn’t Melbourne 2030 leave out some key characteristics? For example, I often hear the difference between Sydney and Melbourne described in terms of qualities like friendliness, tolerance, cultural diversity and even the quality of coffee, food and shopping.
In my view there are problems with most of these attributes. Some of them are just plain lightweight. Some aren’t susceptible to easy definition and/or measurement. And it’s hard to believe that there are significant differences, on average, between Sydney and Melbourne in relation to most of them – or at least differences on such a scale that it affects the comparative liveability.
I’m amazed at the number of people who seriously claim that “the coffee” or “shopping” in Sydney are better than they are in Melbourne, or that the people in one place are friendlier or more tolerant than in the other. How can they objectively know this?! I suspect people who make these kinds of claims extrapolate from a handful of very personal experiences to arrive at some very sweeping and highly suspect generalisations.
And while there are definitely differences, how serious are they? Consider, for example, the proportion of the population who were born overseas (which is often used as a measure of cultural diversity). At the 2006 Census, 39% of Sydney’s population was born overseas and 35% of Melbourne’s (they both had the same proportion of migrants from english-speaking countries).
Based on these numbers, it would be a big call to say Sydney is notably more culturally diverse than Melbourne and an even bigger call to say Sydney is consequently the more liveable (or not) of the two cities.
This is very different from the US where there is much more variation between cities than there is in Australia. Similarly, if I were comparing Melbourne against international cities like London or Paris, then I would expect to find more significant differences. There is also much more variation within Australian cities than there is between them, as I’ve mentioned previously.
In any event I don’t think asking whether Melbourne is more liveable than Sydney is the same as asking which city is best, or most exciting, or whatever. As I see it, liveability implies a more basic set of qualities that are common to every city.
What in my view is missing from the “definition” of liveability implicit in Melbourne 2030 is job opportunities, housing affordability and accessibility, none of which are addressed directly in the Mercer or The Economist surveys. Jobs affect your income, housing costs affect your disposable income and accessibility determines how much discretionary time you have available.
What do these variables say about Melbourne vis a vis Sydney?
The differences in terms of average pay, unemployment rates and job security are not large like they are between cities in the US, so we can ignore job opportunities (remembering recessions like Melbourne in the 90s tend to be temporary).
But as I said here, you can buy a house at the median price in Melbourne 12 km from the CBD, whereas in Sydney you have to go out 23 km to buy the median priced house. The house is $70,000 cheaper in Melbourne too. Sydneysiders also travel further and longer on average than Melburnites. So my vote goes to Melbourne – on other attributes these two cities are either too similar or any differences can’t be measured reliably.